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Acos Breeds White Bean Success in Ethiopia (PCN Winter 2013) JAN 1 2013 | Consumers and Producers | Pulse Crop News

This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Pulse Crop News.

“I believe that the future of agriculture lays in Africa.”

As Managing Director of Acos, an agricultural commodity supply company based in Italy, Remo Pedon has an insight into the world of agriculture that can only be gained through working for over 25 years as an international pulse trader. And while his experience has proven to him the opportunities available around the globe, his confidence in Africa’s potential no doubt stems from his work in Ethiopia, where his successful seed supply system has changed the face of bean production in the heavily populated African country.

Like many other developing countries, agriculture is at the core of Ethiopia’s economy. Fertile land, adequate rainfall, and moderate climate create generally good growing conditions in the land-locked country, and as a result, agricultural commodities account for roughly 85 per cent of Ethiopia’s export market. Ethiopia’s large population is another factor in its reliance on agriculture: of its 83 million citizens, roughly 70 million live in rural areas, and 80 per cent of its labour force works in agriculture. Producers in Ethiopia are primarily smallholders, with over half farming plots of 1 hectare or smaller, and many of these producers rely on their production to feed their families.

But despite its rich resources and large labour base, only 25 per cent of arable land in Ethiopia is cultivated, and agricultural productivity remains low, partially due to a lack of infrastructure, transportation, and technology. To make matters worse, poverty in Ethiopia is rampant because of these deficiencies, and most of rural population of the country lives far below the international poverty line. As a result, Ethiopia is faced with the challenge of maximizing its agricultural productivity to ensure the livelihood of a large portion of its population.

Seeing the potential for agricultural development in the country, the Pedon family set out to help Ethiopia with this problem, through the development of Acos Ethiopia in 2005. Because beans have long been an important export commodity in Ethiopia, Pedon invested in a European standard bean cleaning and processing site facility near Addis Abeba, Ethiopia’s capital city located in the fertile Rift Valley region.

“The agricultural industry in Ethiopia is underdeveloped with an unexpressed potentiality if you consider lands and natural resources available like water,” said Pedon. “But there are several reasons that convinced us to develop a new business in Ethiopia. First of all, there are uncontaminated lands ready to be cultivated under perfect and favorable climatic conditions. The huge quantity of water available and the knowledge of beans helped us to develop rural activities in this country.”

The primary focus of these activities has been on improving the development and distribution of basic seed to smaller farmers. Working jointly with researchers from the Ethiopian Seed Enterprise, Acos Ethiopia supplied 700mt to 15,000 small farmers, most of whom received enough to plant one acre. But real headway on increasing production began in 2010, when Acos and Catholic Relief Services set out to develop a single-variety supply chain in an effort to improve the quality of the seed available to producers, resulting in a higher-yielding variety called Awash Melka.

“Strategically, the development of a single seed variety proved fundamental to the success of the Ethiopian Navy,” Pedon said. “There were multiple incentives that supported this strategy. Awash Melka had higher yields, so even if farmers achieved no price gain for growing this variety, they would increase their incomes through higher levels of production. Also, the shift to the larger seed type would increase demand for improved seed. Finally, there would be less waste, as Acos had previously bought 25 per cent more beans than needed in order to sift out the low-quality beans, which then had to find alternative markets.”

According to Pedon, factory tests showed Awash Melka to be the best of the new local varieties and to be well-suited to a single-variety supply chain because the beans looked different from other common varieties (Awash Melka beans were larger, flatter and a more creamy color than the smaller, rounder, white seeds of previous varieties.) By focusing on a single-variety model, Acos has provided growers with access to high-quality seed that, in turn, has produced higher quality results.

“Since we’ve worked in Ethiopia, economic conditions and free access to the market have become better,” said Pedon. “If we refer to economic and agricultural aspects, we have succeeded in promoting better quality and higher yields.”

And these improvements to quality and yield have increased market access for Ethiopia’s beans, according to Pedon. “In my opinion, the Ethiopian Navy pea beans are an excellent product that perfectly suits the needs of the main European and American canning industry. So we’ve connected African farmers with high-value markets. Today, farmers are able to sell their products fixing a price seven times more than the price of six years ago. This allows thousands of families to own lands and to start new activities, such as dairy farming or animal husbandry.”

This emphasis on overall sustainability for agricultural workers in Ethiopia underscores that Acos is not just helping local farmers produce better crops; the company is also helping the community as a whole, by providing employment in its Nazreth plant and free education to local children. Since it opened its doors in 2006, the Acos Ethiopia plant has grown to include 350 employees, which in turn creates income for 15,000 families. And because the plant mainly employs women – the primary family caretakers – Acos built a school next to the plant to ensure its workers had a safe, educational environment in which to leave their children while they worked. Free of charge, with free bussing and cafeteria service, the school accepts 250 children each year.

Pedon sees these efforts as an investment that will help Ethiopia realize its potential.

“So far, it has been an overwhelming experience,” Pedon said of Acos’ work in Ethiopia. “Ethiopia is a fascinating country of great potential and incredibly resourceful, able people. We can certainly say that Ethiopia has given us far more than we could possibly imagine, much more than sheer commodity. Starting a project in Ethiopia has been an enormously fulfilling experience for us all, an emotional journey that touched the lives of many, a truly rewarding experience.”

Beyond the personal rewards of creating this program in Ethiopia, there are far-reaching benefits to the world-wide agriculture industry as well, according to Pedon. “We believe that, in Ethiopia, we developed a successful network which could be a model for other countries. Moreover, I personally think that legumes are a key-commodity in the near future according to the increasing consumption, nutritional claims, affordable price, and eco-friendly aspects if we compare to other agricultural products such as grains and rice.”

And while Pedon believes that Acos’ work with white pea beans has helped reduce poverty and enhance economic development in the country, he feels that some barriers to trading with Africa remain. Production reliability and food safety are concerns for buyers across the world – but the greater challenge lies in combating the perception that, by trading with Africa, consumers are somehow taking food from hungry people. As such, the need to showcase the positive work of companies like Acos will become critical to the continued sustainability and success of small farmers in Ethiopia.

Acos, part of Pedon Group, is a privately held company specializing in the processing and sale of dried pulses and grains in bulk. With its headquarters in Italy, Acos runs its own facilities in China, Ethiopia, and Argentina, primarily important areas for agricultural commodity supplies. Thanks to a vertically integrated approach and the strictest traceability system, Acos features a complete supply chain control providing high-grade quality and GMO-free products to food industries, packers, and wholesalers all over the world.